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Den of Lambs

Christian Defense of the Faith

Month

December 2015

The Slaughter Of The Innocents; Historically Plausible?

 

Though unattested in secular records, the slaughter of the innocents is a historically plausible event consistent with the character and actions of Herod the Great.  Herod killed his enemies, family members and friends and would not have given a second thought about killing infants in order to secure his throne.

Slaughter of the Innocents“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah,weeping and loud lamentation,Rachel weeping for her children  she refused to be comforted, because they care no more.” Matt 2:16-18

Herod the Wicked

Herod was crowned “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC in Rome.  Upon his return to the Land of Israel, he was given a Roman army and was eventually able to capture Jerusalem.  Mattathias Antigonus, his Hasmonean predecessor,  was executed with the help of Mark Antony. Herod also killed 45 leading men of Antigonus’ party in 37 BC (Antiquities 15:5-10; LCL 8:5-7).

Herod had the elderly John Hyrcanus II strangled over an alleged plot to overthrow him in 30 BC (Antiquities15:173-178; LCL 8:83-85).

Herod continued to purge the Hasmonean family.  He eliminated his brother-in-law, Aristobulus, who was at the time an 18 year old High Priest.  He was drowned in 35 BC by Herod’s men in the swimming pool of the winter palace in Jericho because Herod thought the Romans would favor Aristobulus as ruler of Judea instead of him (Antiquities 15:50-56; LCL 8:25-29; Netzer 2001:21-25).  He also had his Hasmonean mother-in-law, Alexandra (the mother of Mariamme) executed in 28 BC (Antiquities 15:247-251; LCL 8:117-119).  He even killed his second wife Miriamme in 29 BC. (Antiquities 15:222-236; LCL 8:107-113).
Around 20 BC, Herod remitted one third of the people’s taxes in order to curry favor with them, however, he did set up an internal spy network and eliminated people suspected of revolt, most being taken to Hyrcania, a fortress in the Judean Desert (Antiquities 15:365-372; LCL 8:177-181).

Herod also had three of his sons killed.  The first two, Alexander and Aristobulus, the sons of Mariamme, were strangled in Sebaste (Samaria) in 7 BC and buried at the Alexandrium (Antiquities16:392-394; LCL 8:365-367; Netzer 2001:68-70).  The last, only five days before Herod’s own death, was Antipater who was buried without ceremony at Hyrcania (Antiquities 17:182-187; LCL 8:457-459; Netzer 2001:75; Gutfeld 2006:46-61).

Herod the Great became extremely paranoid during the last four years of his life (8-4 BC).  On one occasion, in 7 BC, he had 300 military leaders executed (Antiquities 16:393-394; LCL 8:365).  On another, he had a number of Pharisees executed in the same year after it was revealed that they predicted to Pheroras’ wife [Pheroras was Herod’s youngest brother and tetrarch of Perea] “that by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendents, and the royal power would fall to her and Pheroras and to any children they might have” (Antiquities17:42-45; LCL 8:393).  Prophecies such as this would certainly have lead to Herod’s paranoia and desire to eliminate Jesus when the wise men revealed the new “king of the Jews” had been born.  (Matt. 2:1-2)

Macrobius (ca. AD 400), one of the last pagan writers in Rome, in his book Saturnalia, wrote: “When it was heard that, as part of the slaughter of boys up to two years old, Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered his own son to be killed, he [the Emperor Augustus] remarked, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig [Gr. hys] than his son’ [Gr. huios]” (2.4.11; cited in Brown 1993:226).

Why No Record?

1. Josephus may not have known

Josephus, writing at the end of the first century AD may not have been aware of the slaughter in Bethlehem at the end of the first century BC.  Curiously, there are important events in the first century AD that Josephus failed to record.  For example, the episode of the golden Roman shields in Jerusalem which was the cause of the bad blood between Herod Antipas and Pontus Pilate (cf. Luke 23:12).  It was the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria that recorded this event (Embassy to Gaius 38:299-305; Maier 1969:109-121).  It should also be pointed out that Josephus got some of his information from Nicolas of Damascus who was Herod the Greats friend and personal historian.  Nicolas may not have recorded such a terrible deed so as not to blacken the reputation of his friend any more than was necessary (Brown 1993:226, footnote 34).

2. The slaughter may not have been as far reaching

The Martyrdom of Matthew states that 3,000 baby were slaughtered.  The Byzantine liturgy places the number at 14,000 and the Syrian tradition says 64,000 innocent children were killed (Brown 1993:205).  Yet Professor William F. Albright, the dean of American archaeology in the Holy Land, estimates that the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth to be about 300 people (Albright and Mann 1971:19).  The number of male children, two years old or younger, would be about six or seven (Maier 1998:178, footnote 25).

3. Josephus may have missed the importance

Paul L. Maier has pointed out, “Josephus wrote for a Greco-Roman audience, which would have little concern for infant deaths.  Greeks regularly practiced infanticide as a kind of birth control, particularly in Sparta, while the Roman father had the right not to lift his baby off the floor after birth, letting it die” (1998:179).

Josephus, even if he knew of the slaughter of the innocents, may have deemed this episode unimportant in light of other monumental events going on at the time of the death of Herod the Great, thus not including it in his writings.
Bibliography

Albright, William; and C. S. Mann
1971 The Anchor Bible.  Matthew.  New York: Doubleday.

Brown, Raymond
1993 The Birth of the Messiah.  A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  New York: Doubleday.

Faulstich, Eugene
1998 Studies in O.T. and N.T. Chronology.  Pp. 97-117 in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II.  Edited by E. J. Vardaman.  Macon, GA: Mercer University.

France, Richard
1979 Herod and the Children of Bethlehem.  Novum Testamentum 31/2:98-120.

Grant, Michael
1971 Herod the Great.  New York: American Heritage.

1999 Jesus.  London: Phoenix.

Gutfeld, Oren
2006 Hyrcania’s Mysterious Tunnels.  Searching for the Treasures of the Copper Scrolls.  Biblical Archaeology Review 32/5:46-61.

Josephus
1976 Jewish Wars, Books 1-3.  Vol. 2.  Trans. by H. Thackeray.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 203.

1980 Antiquities of the Jews 15-17.  Vol. 8.  Trans. by R. Marcus and A. Wikgren.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 410.

Kasher, Aryeh; with Witztum, Eliezer
2007 King Herod: A Persecuted Persecutor.  Trans. by K. Gold.  Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Maier, Paul
1969 The Episode of the Golden Roman Shields in Jerusalem.  Harvard Theological Review 62:109-121.

1998 Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem.  Pp. 169-189 in Chronos, Kairos, Christos II.  Edited by E. J. Vardaman.  Macon, GA: Mercer University.

Mueller, Tom
2008 Herod.  The Holy Land’s Visionary Builder.  National Geographic 214/6:34-59.

Netzer, Ehud
2001 The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great.  Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Institute and Israel Exploration Society.

Christmas Tree; Roots In Paganism?

Is the Christmas tree a pagan symbol?  The short answer is yes.  In order, though, to find the full answer, one must look into the history of this icon of Christmas celebration.

Christmas Tree Rockefeller Center“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime” [1]

The claim, that the Christmas tree has its roots in paganism, is correct. However, what should be remembered is that evergreens holds a distinct place in the history of the Christian church as well.

Ancient Origins

An ancient tradition laced with fact and legend supposes that Boniface could have been the one who initiated the tradition in Germany. Boniface, appointed by Pope Gregory II as a missionary to the Germans in the early 700’s, was an ardent defender of Christianity and sought to destroy paganism in any way possible. Boniface, finding that the Germanic peoples were worshipping an oak tree devoted to Thor, “immediately took an axe to it. After only a few blows, the tree toppled to the ground, breaking into four pieces and revealing itself to be rotted away from within”[3]

Legend has it that an evergreen grew from the trunk of the Oak of Thor. Boniface taught that the evergreen served as a symbol that the old pagan ways had died and was resurrected in the Christian faith.

Modern Origins

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is aChristmas Tree widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. [2]

Christian Controversy

Some Christians and unbelievers will argue that the Bible teaches against using Christmas trees to celebrate Christmas:

Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move..” Jeremiah 10:2-4

However, if you read the next chapter, you can see that Jeremiah is speaking of wooden idols that have no causal connection to the world, not Christmas trees.

“Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” Jeremiah 10:5

The Bible Answer Man Hank Hanegraaff, author of The Heart of Christmas, writes, “Christmas trees originated in Christian Germany two thousand years after Jeremiah’s condemnation of manmade idols. They evolved over time from two Christian traditions.  One was a “Paradise Tree” hung with apples as a reminder of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.  The other was a triangular shelf holding Christmas figurines decorated by a star.  In the sixteenth century. These two symbols merged into the present Christmas tree tradition.  As such, the Christmas tree began as a distinctively Christian symbol and can still be legitimately used by Christians today as part of their Christmas festivities.[4]

Conclusion

Yes, the Christmas tree may have been influenced by pagan symbols but there is nothing wrong for a Christian to own a Christmas tree. While the evergreen has some history in pagan religions, the evergreen holds an even deeper history in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Cor 5:17

[1]Encyclopaedia Britannica 2012,  http://www.britannica.com/plant/Christmas-tree).

[2]History.com / History of Christmas Trees

[3]131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Holman Reference), Galli & Olsen 2000, 365.

[4]Hank Hanegraaff, The Heart of Christmas: A Devotional for the Season, 2009

The Reason For The Season

NativityAs a jeweler, the Christmas season is obviously the most hectic and stressful time of the year for me.  For almost a decade (since I gave my life to Christ) I’ve progressively tried to make Christmas less about my work and more about Christ’s work, less about what I’m going to give and more about what Christ has already given to me. It seems shameful that one must consciously MAKE Christmas about what it obviously SHOULD be about, but unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the only one in this predicament.

How have I kept Jesus Christ as the reason for the season?

Devotional – In doing a personal and family Christmas devotional, it not only regiments me to spend more time in the Word, but it opens me up to the reception and guidance of the Holy Spirit like no other time during the year.  Studying the Gospel accounts of the Incarnation and the Greatest Story ever told fills my spirit like nothing else.
Prayer – In every prayer I acknowledge the season that I’m in, thank God for His condescension into this fallen world and His sacrifice and atonement of my sins.
MusicJoy to the World and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing are some of the greatest song ever written.  They, among other hymns, are imbued with rich theological content and they’re simply uplifting and pleasant to listen to. So, switch All I Want for Christmas is You for O Come all Ye Faithful and enjoy the lyrics and melodies of these Worship songs.
Church – Don’t forget your church family! If you’re not a church-goer, you should give it a go.  Christmastime is usually full of special services and reflective devotionals to ensure the season is focused on Christ so don’t let the distractions of the season prevent you from attending.

 

Give – We also can’t forget that Christmas is about the world receiving the greatest gift of all: the Word become Flesh. God with us, Emmanuel. So giving gifts intentionally can be a way of reflecting this. My wife is amazing at giving her time to volunteer efforts and including our kids in these endeavors.

Nativity – Remembering that the Greatest Story Ever Told is much more than just a story can help us to remember to keep Christ in Christmas. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,  to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2:1-20

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